By Carissa Chu
Photos by Chaumtoli Huq, Law@Margins
Anju Begum comes from a poor family in Bangladesh. Without an education and like many others before her, she took a job at a garment factory when she was a teenager. It’s been more than 15 years since that day, and she still finds herself at a factory, sewing garments for the Western world. She’s still poor, but something about her has changed. Her eyes aren’t hardened from the years of manual labor or the lack of money saved. She feels stronger, more purposeful. And she appears before a film crew, stands tall with her face in full view, and speaks as if she had years of training before a camera. “My name is Anju Begum. I am the president of my union. I am also a woman.”
Begum’s story of empowerment emerged on the heels of some of the world’s deadliest disasters in the garment industry. Two years ago, the Rana Plaza building collapsed just outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 1,130 people and injuring some 2,500 more. Eight stories of concrete crushed people who were threatened to work that day, despite definitive warnings that the building was unsafe. That accident came just five months after a fire at the Tazreen Factory killed 112 people who were trapped inside.
Chaumtoli Huq, a lawyer and senior research fellow at the American Institute for Bangladesh Studies, met Begum and was inspired by her story. She and a local filmmaker, Mohammad Romel, teamed up to create a documentary on the workers’ rights movement. After an initial crowd-funding campaign, they met 101% of its $8500 goal, and shooting began.
Anju Begum was one of several women they interviewed. She probably never knew she’d someday become such a powerful voice in one of the biggest garment manufacturing industries in the world. Begum credits her union, the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Federation (BIGWF), for helping her gain the confidence she needed. It educated her about her rights as woman, and empowered her to stand up to an abusive husband. Begum said, “most women are not aware of their rights, because most of us are not educated, especially Bangladesh women workers… As a woman, I know my rights, and I can make other women aware of their rights, then we can move forward together.”
That confidence is key in a culture where women often feel marginalized, and in an industry where they also make up the majority of the workforce. Huq says these leaders know the risks involved, but are willing to fight if it means having a chance at reshaping the future for themselves and their families.
The risk is still very real, and it is still very high. Just this past November, female union leaders at the Azim Group’s Global Garments Factory were attacked and beaten. According to the Worker Rights Consortium, factory managers themselves were suspected of directing those attacks. And it appears it wasn’t an isolated event. Three months before, another story emerged about a female union president at a different Azim factory getting beaten with an iron rod. There are already laws on the books to protect workers, but Huq says it has been an ongoing struggle to get them enforced.
Despite these setbacks, such abuses in the garment industry are getting more attention in the Western world. In the most recent beatings at the Azim Group, top Western retailers halted business with factory owners until they agreed to pay the injured workers’ medical bills; re-hire those who were wrongfully terminated; and finally, allow workers the right to unionize.
Huq says these people like Begum are helping labor unions gain strength to slowly change the landscape. For Begum, she and her union are planning to meet with managers at her garment factory to begin negotiations for maternity leave and severance pay. She says she is confident she will succeed because she has her union and its support.
Huq spoke of another woman who led the formation of a union at her factory. The group succeeded in getting employers to not only enforce maternity leave — which is required by law — but also stopped the company from firing workers without cause. “Stories of change may seem small in scale”, says Huq, but they are “important to building confidence among workers.”
No timeline has been set for the documentary’s release, which has been dubbed, Sramik Awaaz, or Workers’ Voices. The crew is currently editing footage, and from there it needs to hold about two more capital campaigns to complete the project. In addition to educating people about their rights, Huq hopes the documentary will enable workers to raise funds for their unions, because people are still being terminated after joining, and workers will need some support should that happen. Further, the country remains far from its goal of turning the garment industry around; it still lacks a clear plan for helping factories meet safety regulations, and unions will be instrumental in making their workplaces safe. On Sunday, the LA Times reported that a fire caused 5 out of 7 floors to collapse at a garment factory. Apparently no one died because everyone was out to lunch, but there were some 3,000 workers in the building just before the accident occurred.
Ultimately, Huq hopes that hearing other workers on film would serve as a catalyst for more people to unionize. Currently, Huq estimates there are some 400 unions representing several thousand employees. While it is small considering there are more than 4 million workers in the industry, these steps are being seen as a sign of hope that someday workers’ lives will mean more than the bottom line. Begum says that despite her lack of an education, she has learned so much, and has more courage to stand up for herself and others. She closes her interview and adds, “Any woman can do what I do.”